Shoukri during his meeting with MPs last Sunday
(photo: Khaled Mashaal)
The House of Representatives, the Senate, the State Information Service (SIS), the Foreign Ministry and the Judges Club have denounced a statement submitted to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) by Finland on 12 March as an attempt to interfere in Egypt’s domestic affairs.
The statement was signed by 31 countries, most of them European but also including the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. No Arab, African, or Asian country signed the statement.
The statement said: “We are deeply concerned about the application of terrorism legislation against human rights activists, LGBTI persons, journalists, politicians, and lawyers. We urge Egypt to end the use of terrorism charges to hold human rights defenders and civil society activists in extended pre-trial detention and the practice of adding detainees to new cases with similar charges after the legal limit for pre-trial detention has expired.”
The statement voiced concern about “restrictions on freedom of expression”, and specifically mentioned “lifting travel bans and asset freezes against human rights defenders — including Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights [EIPR] staff.”
Within hours of the release of the statement the Foreign Ministry expressed “great surprise and condemnation” at what it described as an inaccurate and incomplete perspective on the human rights situation in Egypt, and said Egypt would present its own statement to the UNHRC highlighting shortcomings in the human rights records of some of the signatories. The countries which signed this report should stop directing politicised accusations which include a lot of unsubstantiated claims, said the ministry, adding that “the issue of human rights is in constant development, no nation has perfected it and no nation has the right to appoint itself as a judge on these matters.”
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri used a meeting with MPs on 14 March to accuse Western organisations of adopting a narrow-minded approach to human rights. “They focus on political aspects only, intentionally ignoring the economic and social dimensions of human rights,” he said.
On 13 March, the House of Representatives and Senate joined forces in criticising the UNHRC statement, which the House described as “highly politicised, unbalanced, biased, and destructive”.
“It is based on lies, unfounded claims, and misleading accusations… it would be better for the UNHRC to be more objective, and to take into account that Egypt is living in a volatile region, and faces many violent and terrorist organisations that are trying their best to wreak havoc and spread chaos” said Egypt’s parliament.
The House added that the Finnish statement reflected Western double standards given that some of the signatories are guilty of human rights abuses including racial discrimination and torture.
“Stop using double standards to exert political pressure and secure objectives that have no relation to human rights,” it concluded.
The House devoted a large part of its plenary session on 14 March to responding to the accusations which Tarek Radwan, head of parliament’s Human Rights Committee, said were full of inaccurate and biased information. “UNHRC officials should come to Egypt and review its record themselves rather than take the information from unreliable and misguided sources,” said Radwan.
Radwan said Egypt would present its own statement to the UNHRC to respond to Western countries’ “unfounded claims” about its human rights record. Alaa Abed, head of parliament’s Transport Committee and deputy speaker of the Arab Parliament, said the UNHRC lacked transparency and objectivity.
“It was written in general terms, and most of its content was based on old, incomplete, and inaccurate information.” He added that the EIPR officials were released from detention some time ago, and that the EIPR was in the process of registering with the Ministry of Social Solidarity as an NGO.
Radwan claimed the UNHRC statement’s use of the EIPR case exposed “the absence of facts when tackling Egyptian issues”.
In December, Egypt’s prosecution ordered the release of three senior EIPR officials on bail after they were arrested in November. The prosecution said EIPR officials had agreed to change their status from a company into a non-profit organisation in accordance with the NGO law.
Independent MP Mustafa Bakri said “the UNHRC statement reflects radical liberal Western agendas. “The statement mentions gays — or what are termed LGBTI persons — though the UNHRC knows quite well that these kinds of rights go against the religious values of the Egyptian people,” said Bakri.“It is also not true that political opponents in Egypt are persecuted.
“The UNHRC statement took the information about Egypt’s human rights from the Muslim Brotherhood and Western human rights organisations with radical leftist and liberal agendas. These organisations see the detention of leaders of a terrorist group like the Muslim Brotherhood as a human rights abuse.”
In a statement on 13 March the Senate said anti-terrorism laws in Egypt are used only against those who commit terrorist crimes based on internationally agreed on definitions.
“No lawyer or journalist or human rights activist is imprisoned unless they have committed a crime that justifies the procedures taken against them,” the statement read.The Judges Club also joined the fray on 13 March, insisting that Egypt has independent judicial and human rights institutions that guarantee fair trials, respect of the law and the constitution, and adhere to universal principles of human rights.
Mohamed Fayek, chairman of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), said the NCHR will prepare a detailed report responding to the statement.
“We admit that there are some problems with the situation of human rights in Egypt, including custodial detention, and we are currently working hard to amend the Criminal Procedures Law to ensure that nobody is held in custodial detention for extended periods,” said Fayek.
Essam Shiha, chairman of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, said on 14 March that no assessment of the human rights situation in Egypt should overlook its social and economic aspects.
“Western organisations focus solely on the political dimensions, which is wrong. Advancing the economic lives of citizens is high on the agenda of local human rights organisations,” said Shiha.
Mohamed Fayez Farahat, director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS), argues that the suggestion Egypt uses terrorism laws to stifle political dissent is entirely unfounded.
“If the report means Muslim Brotherhood prisoners, these are members of an outlawed organisation involved in terrorist activities,” said Farahat. “Compare Egypt’s war against terrorism with that waged by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan and you will see that the US gravely violated human rights in these two countries.”
Farahat said the statement had been released at a time when the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and Western organisations hostile to Egypt are hoping the Biden administration will exert pressure on Egypt.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed concern over Egypt’s human rights record in a phone call with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri last month.
Shoukri told MPs on Sunday that “Egypt has nothing to hide or fear and that all state authorities are working hard to advance the human rights agenda in line with the constitution.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Critical response